Anthropoid will set off alarm bells in the hearts and minds of sci-fi aficionados, who will surely assume that this new movie includes at least one robotic life form. (Apart from Fifty Shades of Grey star Jamie Dornan.) But the title actually refers to a real World War II secret mission: In 1942, at the height of Czechoslovakia’s Nazi occupation, a team led by two Czech men (Dornan and Cillian Murphy) were parachuted into Prague on orders to assassinate one of Hitler’s top commanders, an SS ghoul named Reinhard Heydrich (German actor Detlef Bothe).
British director Sean Ellis has a knack for staging the film’s early plotting-the-scheme scenes in dimly lit, monochrome interiors, but the storytelling is disappointingly square. Both protagonists are bestowed with a boring female love interest (“Maria makes me feel that there is hope,” Dornan says in a tremulous Czech accent) and the action lumbers from one stone-cold serious moment to the next. The movie shares qualities with Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 naughty Black Book (and to a lesser extent, Inglourious Basterds), but needed much more of those filmmakers’ genre-blasting verve. Even Bryan Singer’s Tom Cruise vehicle Valkyrie, about at assassination attempt of Hitler, benefited from a game supporting cast. Here, the film is only occasionally goosed by the ever-welcome presence of Toby Jones, once a Nazi in Captain America: The First Avenger, now lending support as a soulful resistance fighter. (Meanwhile, there’s another version of the Operation Anthropoid story, which delves deeper into Heydrich’s life, coming next year called HHHH — not exactly the winner of the movie title lottery either.)
But though Anthropoid lacks narrative ambition, the film justifies its reason for being thanks to a devastating final half-hour. Some audiences might not know whether the resistance fighters were successful in killing Heydrich (if you don’t, save the Wikipedia reading until after the movie’s done), but sufficed to say, the Czech team eventually become cornered in a Prague church. And Ellis stages their last stand with all the dazzling fervor of a Spielberg battle scene, grenades and gunfire that you’ll feel in your bones, while also not skimping on the terror and violence that coursed through Nazi society. In one scene, a teenager is tortured for information and shown a tin metal bucket containing something too horrific to reveal here in words. As a depiction, ultimately, of the unbelievable gruesomeness of a world gone completely upside-down, Anthropoid lives up to sci-fi name. B